By Jim Kouri
This report is based on an unclassified version of a classified report the GAO issued in February 2012. The unclassified version was released on April 17 and it was immediately obtained for analysis by the National Association of Chiefs of Police and the Law Enforcement Examiner.
In the wake of the shocking September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Federal Bureau of Investigation made counterterrorism its top investigative priority. Since that fateful day, the FBI has hired thousands of additional staff, increasing its total onboard workforce by 38 percent, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office.
In particular, the FBI has increased both the size and the role of its Counterterrorism Division (CTD) that is located in Washington, D.C., according to FBI officials.
In 2005, the FBI reported that nearly 40 percent of staff positions in certain parts of CTD were vacant, raising concerns about the FBI’s ability to fulfill its most important mission, and as a result the U.S. Congress requested that the GAO review FBI CTD vacancies.
The latest GAO report describes “the extent to which counterterrorism vacancies existed at FBI HQ since 2005 and the reasons for the vacancies as well as the impact of the strategies implemented by the FBI to address these vacancies.”
GAO analysts obtained data on CTD vacancies from fiscal years 2005 through 2011 as well as strategies the FBI used to address vacancies and their costs. GAO also interviewed FBI human resources and counterterrorism officials regarding vacancies and the FBI’s steps to address them.
“From fiscal years 2005 through 2011, the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s human capital strategies contributed to reductions in the vacancy rate for all positions in the Counterterrorism Division (CTD) from 26 percent to 6 percent. Most vacancies were caused by transfers to other parts of the FBI. While overall vacancies declined, trends in vacancies varied by position. For example, vacancies for special agents and professional staff generally decreased each year while vacancies for intelligence analysts varied during the same time period,” according to the GAO analysis.
The FBI developed the Headquarters Staffing Initiative (HSI) in 2005 to reduce special agent vacancies in CTD and other divisions, and primarily used workforce flexibilities, such as recruitment incentives, and targeted recruitment to reduce vacancies for intelligence analysts and professional staff.
Overall, FBI officials claim that these strategies have been effective in the overall reduction of vacancies. Specifically, HSI included two primary strategies to reduce vacancies: allowing special agents to come to HQ on 18-month temporary duty assignments instead of permanent transfers and providing relocation incentives to special agents to permanently transfer to HQ.
Since 2006, GAO estimates that the FBI has spent $50 million to staff CTD with special agents under HSI. According to the FBI, “HSI is the primary reason agent vacancies in CTD were reduced. In addition, FBI officials said HSI yielded other benefits.”
For example, officials from all sections within CTD stated that HSI helped to build a cadre of experienced counterterrorism agents both within CTD and in field offices. HSI has reduced vacancies, but a 2005 FBI working group report noted that while HSI may be effective in the short term, a long-term solution would require a more thorough analysis.
FBI officials reported that they are planning an evaluation of HSI; however, they have not established criteria, time frames, and other factors of the evaluation. By defining these elements, the FBI could better ensure that the evaluation of HSI will produce accurate and relevant findings that can inform the long-term staffing strategy for agents in CTD and other HQ programs, according to the GAO analysts.